Environmentalists, neighbours, ministry concerned as black smoke problems continue at Dofasco

Environment Hamilton says ArcelorMittal Dofasco is 'sliding back on its progress' as it continues to pass site-specific limits that are already set below the province's regulations.

Dofasco says its coke stack emissions in the 2nd quarter were 'one of the best' since 2013

Dark smoke rises out of the stacks at ArcelorMittal on July 19. (Environment Hamilton/Twitter)

Environmental activists in Hamilton are raising red flags about emissions in a plume of black smoke coming from ArcelorMittal Dofasco, saying the company is falling behind on its efforts to curb harmful contaminants coming from its plants. 

In a video posted by Environment Hamilton to Twitter, a plume of black smoke is shown rising from the factory at Dofasco. 

The bursts of dark smoke aren't new, but Environment Hamilton's executive director Lynda Lukasik said she's noticed that the emissions have recently gotten worse. 

"At the start of the covid crisis, things over there looked pretty good," she said. "But in the last, probably, month-and-a-half or so, we're noticing more and more visible emissions from the coke stacks."

"Sharing that video was just a reminder to the community, 'hey, you know this facility isn't where it needs to be.' In fact, it's kind of sliding backwards a bit." 

Katryna Bezner has lived near the facility in the Delta West neighbourhood for seven years. The smell, she says, coming from the factory every time the wind blows in from the north-east, is "awful." 

"It's really frustrating living in an area where you have to look at the weather app to see what the wind direction will be in the next few hours if you want to open your windows," she said. 

Bezner wants people to keep taking videos and pictures off the stacks and making calls to show when problems arise. 

"People who have lived in these areas for a long time, they feel like they're powerless. Their voices are not heard," she said. "The industry keeps saying that if they don't hear anything from us, then everything is a-okay. And that's not okay." 

She says the sights and smells have been worse come this spring.

"There's black stuff coming out constantly," she said.

Pictured in this file photo, Katryna Bezner, a Delta West resident, says the smoke and smell from Dofasco has recently been getting worse. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Coke batteries at the steel mills release dangerous containments, explained Lukasik and added that a lot of time and energy has been put into pushing for the facility upgrades to reduce amounts being released into the air. 

"Not only does it look bad, but it is awful because it does include contaminants like benzene and benzo(a)pyrene, and they are both chemicals that are confirmed human carcinogens," she said.

The plume in the video happened at the No. 2 coke plant, which houses two coke batteries, during "pushing," said an ArcelorMittal Dofasco spokesperson.

There have been several instances before this where black smoke belched out of the stacks due to upsets at their blast furnaces. 

Environment ministry is concerned

The video follows a community liaison meeting with the company last week, which raised concerns for Lukasik that the company was "sliding back a bit in their progress" on one of their coke plants in particular. 

The plants have a set limit for the opacity of their emissions, which is how dark they can be. 

The average for monthly opacity of door leaks from the No. 3 plant, which is not the one in the video, has been rising since February. 

ArcelorMittal Dofasco's environment director John Lundrigan said that the technology, operations and maintenance teams are working to "understand the dynamics" that are leading to this rise. 

"Our plant is a complex network of assets that in many cases are interconnected with gas flows," he said and added this can "introduce cause and effect scenarios when there are changes." 

But he said that performance in the second quarter was "quite good — one of our best quarters since 2013."

"Having said that, there is room for improvement and we are continuing work on Phase 27 of our coke plant restoration program," he said. 

The $87 million restorations have been ongoing since 2014. Meeting minutes show Phase 27 is delayed, and later phases of the restoration have been deferred due to the COVID-19 crisis. 

Environment Hamilton says that ArcelorMittal Dofasco is sliding back on its progress as it continues to surpass limits that are already set below the province's air regulation. (John Rieti/CBC)

In the community meeting minutes, Lundrigan acknowledged the presence of dark smoke rising from the stacks.

"Even though there has been overall improvement, you may be seeing more emissions in the daytime. Don't doubt that you are seeing some emissions," he said.

The Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks, who was at the meeting, said it "shares the concern expressed by community members." 

"We aren't happy as well with the upward trend. No one is," said Paul Widmeyer, the ministry's district manager for Hamilton in the meeting minutes. 

"Just last week we met briefly with the company to talk about this and there will be some follow up as the work progresses." 

In an email to CBC News, the ministry said it continues to monitor the company's progress to make sure they are meeting their site specific limits. 

Dofasco to report findings to the ministry

Lukasik emphasized that their limits aren't as stringent as those in Ontario's regulation on air quality. Once a limit is surpassed, she said, the company is not complying. 

Sometimes the darkness of the smoke stayed within the limit (lid leaks from both plants ranged under the 1 per cent allowed) but they could also be well above.

The coke plant that is trending darker had door leaks that ranged from 6.9 per cent to 35 per cent opacity. That limit is 5 per cent. 

The 2020 limit for opacity of pushing emissions —  the type in the video — is 30 per cent.

In the company's second quarter, the No. 2 and No. 3 coke plants had emissions that ranged between 7.5 per cent to 61.67 per cent opacity and 13.33 per cent to 45.83 per cent, respectively. 

In pushing, a mechanical arm pushes coke out of the oven doorways and into a rail car, which transports it to a quenching tower for rapid cooling.

The emissions, which are comprised of coke oven gas and coal particulate matter, last around two minutes or less. 

A spokesperson for the ministry said there are pollution control devices in place, but if coke hasn't been fully heated or processed, it can result in emissions. 

The company will gather more information on the cause and report its findings to the ministry. 

The next community liaison meeting is scheduled for October.